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12 August 2023

Oxford Street’s decline is a parable for the UK

The failure to pedestrianise the shopping street shows our local government system is broken.

By Jonn Elledge

Europe’s busiest shopping street is looking distinctly scruffy these days. Many of Oxford Street’s retail spaces are vacant and others occupied by a suspiciously high number of giant sweet shops, which seem, somehow, able to afford the rent. There are no doubt many reasons for this – national decline; Covid-19; the appearance of glitzier, less weather-dependent shopping alternatives at either end of the Central Line. But a big factor is surely the street itself, a dirty grey canyon choked with buses and cabs and the pollution they spit out.

So in 2016, Transport for London finally unveiled long-discussed plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street: curtailing or diverting those dozens of bus routes, raising the road surface to match the pavements, installing more trees and public art. Had it all gone to plan, Oxford Street should have become a “traffic-free pedestrian boulevard” years ago. 

It hasn’t – because the City of Westminster, the council responsible, doesn’t want it to, and spiked the plan in 2018. Residents in neighbouring areas such as Marylebone and Mayfair worried that diverted buses and delivery vans would create gridlock, while some local businesses feared that it would actually reduce footfall. I’ve been suspicious of such views since at least 2003, when I read a news report in which the man who ran the cigarette stand outside Elephant & Castle Tube station complained that the congestion charge would kill his business – but whether they are right or wrong matters less than the fact there are sound electoral reasons for Westminster Council to listen to the residents and businesses on its patch. It does not need to listen to the rest of us. 

This is why, I suspect, this has not proved to be a partisan issue. The eternally Tory Westminster council fell to Labour for the first time in May 2022, but anyone hoping this would lead to a change in approach to Oxford Street will have been disappointed. Its leader, Adam Hug, told a recent edition of the New Statesman Podcast that his council was now moving ahead with improvements such as wider pavements and more trees, and lambasted his predecessors’ inaction. Pedestrianisation, though, is still off the agenda. 

[see also: The absurdity of the Tories’ “on your bike” plea]

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(In the name of completeness, I should say Hug clarified his position to me via Twitter. After so much wasted time, he argued, the key thing was doing something that can be delivered quickly. He also said that the widely-held belief that local retailers are simply wrong about the impact pedestrianisation would have on their businesses “gets murkier the more you poke at it”; that many major retailers were keen not to lose bus or cab access; and that he had changed his mind on this one.)

This is, in other words, a story about a clash between the needs and interests of a small, local group and those of a much wider community. Oxford Street is a London-wide asset, yet the people who make decisions about it are answerable to a small group who live or work near it, so their specific interests take priority. You could make the same argument about the part-time pedestrianisation of Soho in the period immediately after lockdown. It improved the life of the capital as a whole, giving it an outdoor hospitality district of the sort most major cities take for granted. Yet it was kiboshed by the Tories because a small number of Soho residents, who have chosen to live in an area associated with nightlife for decades, found the noise too much, and the new Labour administration has no plans to reverse this decision. Whoever Westminster votes for, its electorate always gets in. 

Where we draw the boundaries between one local authority and another has had an impact on cities and their economies for at least a century. In 1923, Detroit hit the legal limit of bonds it could issue – effectively going bust – after two decades of annexation left it with a far larger land area than it could ever hope to provide services to. Today the borderlands where one London borough meets another are often neglected, as councils prefer to focus development and services on their heartlands.

The boundaries of other cities, meanwhile, leave them unable to grow at all. One of the things preventing Oxford from tackling its chronic housing crisis is “underbounding”, meaning in this case that the (largely Labour) city’s hinterland lies outside its boundaries in the ring of rural (Tory) districts. The former has little spare land on which to build homes; the latter has land aplenty but little incentive to build these homes to help someone else’s voters. This is an extreme case, but not a unique one. 

Some of these problems can be solved by moving planning issues to a higher level of government: the burgeoning combined authorities which cover entire counties or cities – areas which cover entire economies, not simply arbitrary chunks of them. The leader of Cherwell District Council may not fancy redefining its green belt to solve Oxford’s housing crisis; a theoretical mayor of Oxfordshire might. 

A bigger impact might be made by redefining the relationship between local and national government. As it stands, councils often have only weak incentives to grow, because so much of the resulting cash gets scooped up by the Treasury anyway: a bigger population, indeed, often means more costs for councils, rather than more revenues. Give councils greater fiscal independence and they might have more reason to face down their voters.

As to Oxford Street, Transport for London could technically take control and overrule Westminster Council. (Doing the same for the whole of Soho would be rather harder.) But that would take years and might face legal challenges, and Sadiq Khan – presumably aware of the headlines about lawyers’ fees this would generate – hasn’t gone there.

So perhaps there’s a case for a bigger reform where control of areas important to the city-wide or national economy is taken out of the hands of the boroughs and given to the mayor.  For that, though, we’d need a government that doesn’t loathe London.

[see also: For the first time I see the point of suburbs]

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